• Melissa Genee, RD

Does my Child Need a Vitamin Supplement?

Image from Marco Verch on Flickr

According to a recent study, more than ⅓ of children and young adolescents take supplements such as multivitamins, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin C. But are they really necessary? While vitamins and minerals are important for proper growth and development for children, healthy children that eat a balanced diet usually do not need any further supplementation. Read on to learn about why vitamins and minerals are important, whether or not your child needs supplementation and when to seek further advice.

What are Vitamins and Minerals?

Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that are essential for many processes in our bodies. Vitamins and minerals do not provide calories or energy but instead work with other nutrients to promote optimal growth and development, prevent or repair damaged cells or tissues and helps maintain normal body functions. Vitamins are lettered and include vitamin A, B, C, D, E and K. Minerals include calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium, sodium and zinc. Vitamins and minerals are found in many foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and protein rich foods, each with their own separate function. Vitamins and minerals even work together for optimal functioning. For example, you may have heard that combining citrus foods and plant sources of protein (i.e. beans) can provide more iron, and that’s correct! The vitamin C in citrus helps increase the absorption of iron in the beans! Read here further for more information on the sources and functions of specific vitamins and minerals.

Does my Child Need a Supplement?

This is a question I get asked quite frequently, and the answer? It depends. Most children that eat a well-balanced and varied diet likely do not need supplementation (except for vitamin D, read more about vitamin D below). But what does that look like? A balanced diet for young children is 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. Meals and snacks should include a variety of foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and protein sources. If your child’s diet [mainly] looks like this, there is likely no need for further supplementation. If you have questions about whether or not your child needs a supplement, your child’s registered dietitian will be able to provide individual recommendations. Whenever possible, it is recommended that children meet their nutrient needs with foods instead of supplements. But sometimes, that’s not possible.

Groups of Children that May Require a Supplement

There are some circumstances where children may require a vitamin and/or mineral supplement.

  • Children with food allergies - food allergies may prevent children from eating a single food or in more severe circumstances, entire food groups. While an allergy to bananas does not warrant supplementation, an allergy to cow’s milk may.

  • Vegetarians or vegans - if children intentionally or unintentionally observe a vegetarian or vegan diet, vitamin B12 supplementation may be necessary as this vitamin is only found in animal foods.

  • Health conditions - some medical conditions may cause increased nutrient needs, which may warrant supplementation.

  • Extremely picky/selective eaters - if your child is extremely selective to the point of avoiding entire food groups, such as fruits and vegetables, they may need a supplement.

  • Children who do not drink cow’s milk - children who do not drink [or drink less than 2 cups] of milk or fortified soy beverage each day, may require a vitamin D and/or calcium supplement.

  • Before starting any supplementation for your child, please speak with your child’s registered dietitian or pediatrician for their individual needs.

Vitamin D

As alluded to above, vitamin D supplementation may be required for some children. Vitamin D is an important nutrient for infants and children as it aids in the absorption of calcium to form and maintain strong bones. Inadequate vitamin D intake as a child may result in brittle bones and fractures later in life. Vitamin D is found naturally in few foods such as fatty fish and egg yolks and fortified foods such as cow’s milk and margarine. You may have also heard that vitamin D can be produced in the skin when bare skin is exposed to sunshine. In northern locations (i.e. Edmonton, Alberta), sunshine is not strong enough to produce vitamin D during the winter months (October to March). It can be difficult for children to obtain adequate and consistent amounts of vitamin D, therefore, it is recommended that all Albertans take a vitamin D supplement daily, year round. For infants and children, provide a supplement containing 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D. Some infants and children may require a higher dose of supplementation based on their individual needs - speak with your child’s registered dietitian or pediatrician.

Vitamin and Mineral Precautions

Most children’s multivitamins contain low amounts of most vitamins and minerals, which should not pose any negative consequences. However, some vitamins and minerals can be dangerous when taken in large or megadoses - especially vitamins A, D, E and K, which are stored in body fat. For example, vitamin A can cause liver damage if taken in large doses. Gummy or candy like vitamins, in particular, can be easy to overeat and result in over supplementation. It is best to keep all vitamins and minerals stored safely out of reach of children. If you suspect your child has taken too much of a supplement, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

While there are certain circumstances where vitamin and mineral supplementation may be required, getting nutrients and minerals from food should be the goal for growing children. It is important to discuss supplementation with your child’s registered dietitian and pediatrician before giving them to your child.

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